Paris, je t'aime.
During the week between Christmas and New Years, I was lucky enough to visit the City of Light. It was breathtaking from start to finish, and if you heard reports of a man being dragged kicking and screaming onto a flight leaving Paris, well...
The last time I'd been abroad, there were no smartphones. Meaning no Google Maps, no Uber, no Yelp, etc. How I managed to get anywhere, I can't imagine. Thankfully, modern technology makes modern global travel infinitely easier, especially if you plan ahead. Here's what I learned on my holiday vacation.
SIM in advance
Conventional wisdom says that once you reach a foreign country, you should just buy a SIM card and switch over to it while you're there.
Conventional wisdom is wrong. For starters, you need service the moment you land, whether it's to call the hotel, summon an Uber or just text family that you've arrived safely. You may be able to find a SIM vendor at the airport, but do you really want to rely on that? And what if there's a language barrier and you need tech help?
My advice: Get your SIM card in advance. You may pay slightly higher rates overall, but you'll also be good to roam as soon as the plane touches down.
I recommend KnowRoaming, which comes in two flavors: a straight-up replacement for your existing SIM card and a sticker that permanently affixes to your existing card -- effectively putting two SIMs in your phone at once.
I had the opportunity to test both in France, and for the most part they worked very well. The big challenge -- as with virtually any SIM swap -- is that you inherit a new phone number, which can cause text-messaging complications. More on that below.
KnowRoaming's call and message rates are very cheap, and you can buy an unlimited-data package for $7.99 per day. Local pay-as-you-go rates may well be cheaper, but I think $8 is extremely reasonable given the convenience.
Beat two-factor authentication
Because of the whole new-number thing, I discovered mid-vacation that I couldn't reset a Gmail password -- which I needed to do because one of my Gmail accounts tends to go bananas (read: insist it's suspicious activity) whenever I connect to an unfamiliar IP address. (Anyone who can help me solve this longstanding problem, which I've researched heavily, gets a box of doughnuts.)
See, that account uses two-factor authentication, meaning that in order to verify my identify, I have to verify receipt of a text message. But I couldn't do that because my primary number wasn't accessible while I was using the foreign SIM. Hmmm.
The solution: plan ahead. Before leaving, make sure all critical accounts -- bank, email, work, Facebook, Twitter, etc. -- are set to verify your identity using a different (i.e. non-text-message) method. This might be a secondary email account, an app like Google Authenticator, or even a local friend's phone number.
Learn the mysteries of iMessage
If you're an iPhone user, iMessage is pretty great -- until you find yourself with a different phone number. Then things get...complicated.
Consider: iMessage relies on data, not SMS, so you'd think that as long as you're connected to the internet (Wi-Fi or data plan), you're golden. But iMessage is still tied to your phone number, and if you change that number (like when you swap SIM cards), things go tilt. At least, that's what happened with the four members of my family.
I won't bore you with the details, other than to suggest that iPhone users wanting to communicate with other iPhone users should plan ahead. For starters, consider tweaking iMessage so that it uses your email address for sending and receiving texts. (You can do this in the Settings app by tapping Messages > Send & Receive, then selecting your email address in both the "can be reached" and "start new conversations from" sections.)
That's still a very messy solution, because existing messaging threads may no longer work, and you'll have to switch everything back when you're back to your home SIM.
Thus, I have the same recommendation for iPhone users that I do for everyone...
Use a third-party messaging app
SMS overseas is a hassle any way you slice it, in part because of the cost, and in part because of your new phone number. A much better bet: some other messaging app.
Take Facebook Messenger. It needs only data, and it's not tied to your phone number. Using it overseas is exactly the same experience as using it at home. Plus, you can use it to make voice or video calls -- again with just data. The catch, of course, is that you can only call or message other Facebook Messenger users.
The same is true of many of other messaging apps (including the venerable Whatsapp), which is why I consider Textnow a great choice for the overseas traveler. It assigns you a phone number that stays the same regardless of your SIM selection, and it can send messages to non-Textnow users. (Inbound messages can also be delivered via email, a helpful backup copy of sorts.)
However, Textnow can handle only some short-code messages, meaning you may get flight alerts from your airline and you may not. Indeed, any new number you use while traveling could put a crimp in text-based notifications, another reason to plan ahead and make sure you can get notifications a different way (like via email).
Google Translate FTW
Despite a 25-year gap between my trip and my four years of high-school French, I managed to communicate pretty well. That said, I'm far from fluent, and there were lots of signs and menus I couldn't read and questions I couldn't properly ask.
But luckily I had the godsend that is Google Translate (Android|iOS). This free app made it a cinch to convert English words and phrases -- either spoken or typed -- into French, while the camera mode magically translated printed French text (the aforementioned signs and menus) into English.
For a variety of reasons, the success rate of the latter was on the lower side, with occasionally hilarious results. (One translated placard of a famous painting revealed the subject to be the "King of Poo.")
Google Translate can perform on-the-fly translations when you're online, but it can also work offline if you download translation databases. To save time (and data) while traveling, download languages in advance. Tap the Settings icon, then Offline translation. Tap the plus sign in the upper-left corner, then choose the language you want to download.
Bring extra power plugs
So you bought a universal power adapter -- good start. That'll let you plug in exactly one device -- which may end up being your spouse's curling iron. One measly travel adapter isn't enough, especially if it gives you just one electrical outlet. Instead, just as you would for travel at home, pack a country-compatible wall plug that offers from two to four USB ports -- the kind you need for charging your phone, tablet, Bluetooth earbuds and Bluetooth speaker. Speaking of which...
Bring a speaker
OK, this holds true for travel anywhere, not just to other countries. But I can't tell you much we enjoyed listening to Spotify's French Holiday playlist over breakfast in the morning; it just added to the flavor of the experience.
A good travel speaker should be compact and lightweight, of course, but with enough oomph to make it worth schlepping. For example, the Tecart Aqua BS100 (currently $19.99 at Amazon) won't add a lot of bulk to your carry-on, but runs for up to 10 hours on a charge and even offers an IPX6 waterproof design. It's just one option of many.
My home Wi-Fi is terrible
This is just an anecdote, a home-network troubleshooting tip I learned while traveling. Before we left home, we downloaded various movies and TV shows from iTunes and Netflix. They took forever. I'm not sure why, but media downloads have always been super-slow on my phones and tablets.
But in the Airbnb apartment we stayed in, episodes of Netflix's "The Crown" downloaded in seconds. It was amazing! I don't know if I have a router issue or what, but it made me realize something is amiss on the old home network, and worth investigating.
Obviously I could have made that same discovery anywhere. But hotel Wi-Fi (indeed, most public Wi-Fi) is almost always terrible, so being in another home produced different results. You don't have to go all the way to Paris, but if you're having a download or connectivity issue in your home, try a friend or neighbor's house and see if the problem disappears. It may help you narrow down the cause.
And that's it! Do you have any international-travel tips of your own to share?